In the countdown to the Iowa caucus, the Associated Press has pulled Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann over for campaigning while female.
In an article that in hundreds of print and online outlets yesterday, it accuses the year's only female presidential candidate of, essentially, whipping out the vagina at the last moment.
Headlined "Bachmann Plays the Gender Card," in the piece, AP reporter Brian Bakst writes that an increasingly "desperate" Bachmann "has made the gender card central to her closing argument."
Bakst reports that Bachmann "seldom underscored gender early in her campaign," only "sprinkling" her stump speech with references to being a mother and how her history of miscarriage played into her anti-abortion views. "But as Bachmann darted around Iowa in the hectic days before Tuesday's caucuses, she hit the woman theme hard."
He contrasts her approach to Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign, pointing out that Clinton played the gender talk down "favoring pantsuits over skirts and stressing instead her experience and resolve," and only really acknowledging the historic nature of her candidacy after she dropped out.
The problem with Bakst's argument is that, aside from a new talking point casting herself as America's Margaret Thatcher, Bachmann's gender has always been a central part of her candidacy.
When you place your identity as wife and mother at the center of your stump speech, that's not a "sprinkle," that's a powerful message to potentially millions of other wives and mothers out there who have never seen a candidate that looked or sounded like them. As we saw in both the Clinton and Palin candidacies of 2008, it's an image that speaks to women across countless political, religious and socio-economic divisions.
Bachmann has never been more than a second-tier candidate; much of the media coverage of her campaign has been driven by the fact that she's the girl in the race this time around. She's benefitted from it, getting her name and her message out to millions more people than her small campaign fund would usually permit, but on balance, it's been a huge drawback.
She's faced legitimate questions over her role as a "submissive wife" and what that would mean if she were president. She's faced illegitimate questions about her husband's sexuality and its unavoidable (if unspoken) reflection back on her own sexuality.
Without knowing a thing about Mitt Romney's cholesterol levels or Rick Perry's prostate, there's been ample coverage of Bachmann's migraines and whether they form a disqualification for high political office. We also know that Bachmann wore a bright red wool coat on Sunday, that she spent $4,700 for a stylist back in June and that she's not always artful with the makeup.
Even though her positions on the issues are no more radical than those of several of her male competitors, it's been far easier to portray Bachmann as hysteric, or crazy, or a "lyin' ass bitch."
None of this is to argue that Bachmann is the best candidate or qualified to be president. It's simply to say that we still don't know how to place female presidential candidates in our national mindset, and this makes it altogether too easy to fall back on negative views of cackle-y, cankle-y, bitchy, witchy, nutcracking, castrating, crazy, dominating, frigid, manipulative, hysterical, headachy, weepy, haggy, saggy womanhood. Until we can change that, we'll never put a card-carrying female in the Oval Office.